Essay writing during an exam can be stressful for the most able of students. But mastering a good writing technique will help you to feel confident, stay calm and create a top-grade answer.
Poppy Murray, a recent Durham University graduate and online tutor at MyTutorWeb shares her seven simple steps to writing a successful exam essay.
1. Concentrate on the question
Read the question carefully (more than once) and underline any key words before you start, so that you know exactly what’s being asked of you. Words such as ‘significant’, ‘explain’ and ‘analyse’ are especially important as they should mould the style of your answer. Thread these sorts of key words into your writing with phrases like ‘this is significant because’ and ‘this explains why’: showing that you’re really answering the question.
2. Invest in a plan
A lot of students say that once they‘ve read an exam question they feel pressured to launch straight into an essay, but it’s important not to feel rushed - and the more relaxed you are, the more readily the ideas will flow. Before you start, jot down a plan for a clear, well-formed argument. This should include your most significant points, a quick summary of how they link together and any quotes or statistics that may support your case.
3. Create a structure
Take a leaf out of Mark Twain’s book. He said:“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks.” This advice will also help to give your essay a structure. Start with an introduction that explains (briefly) what you want to cover, then move onto the main body of your text - your arguments - and finally to your conclusion, to sum up these arguments. Make sure you don’t veer off topic.
4. Write in a clear style
Stick to a straightforward writing style. A good introductory line would be: ‘Over the course of this essay I will argue that…’ This should help you focus, and give the examiner a clear idea of what you can offer. Then start the main part of the essay with your strongest point. Finally, conclude with a single concise paragraph. Never make a new point in this final paragraph - but feel free to offer some conclusive opinions on the strength of your different arguments.
5. Use plenty of evidence
Back up each of your points with evidence, such as quotes, data or sources. Then explain why your examples are significant and how they relate to the question. Giving evidence is good, but offering further explanation shows that you really know what you’re doing. This is the place to pick up top marks.
6. Keep your eye on the clock
Timing is often top of the list of student worries when it comes to essay writing in exams. Many complain that they would have been able to do better ‘if only they’d had more time’. Divide your time logically and - if you have an hour to write an essay - spend 10 minutes on the plan, a further 10 on the introduction, 35 on the main body and 5 on the conclusion. This will ensure that you don’t get carried away on one particular point to the detriment of others. But, if you do go over any of your quotas slightly, you can always try to make up for it later.
7. Don’t regurgitate
Examiners are looking for proof that you can use your initiative to adapt your revision to a question, rather than reciting everything that you’ve learnt - even if the question takes you by surprise. A mechanical essay that lacks substance or original thought won’t impress - but it may be easier than you think to avoid this pitfall. As the author James Stephens once said: “Originality does not consist of saying what no one has ever said before, but of saying exactly what you think yourself.”